Spring reading: Thoughtful alternatives to the tube
The influences of technology, power and the Irish experience are assessed in these recently released books.
Too much technology, information can dull compassion
Compassion: Living in the Spirit of St. Francis, by Ilia Delio, OSF. St. Anthony Messenger Press (Cincinnati, 2011). 142 pp., $14.99.
In "Compassion: Living in the Spirit of St. Francis," Franciscan Sister Ilia Delio shows that in spite of the valuable contributions of technology, we may be in danger of a "globalized superficiality." Being inundated with information of every kind precludes our living at a deeper level from which compassion flows.
We tend to see machines as role models, rather than tools, says Sister Ilia, and could become isolated, spending more time at computers than in interaction with others or with nature. When the differences are blurred between real experiences and computer simulations, we strengthen the ego, attempting to control or create the real, rather than surrendering to a greater purpose, which would lead to self-transformation. Technology lends itself to individual control, the author states, obscuring our dependence on the earth, others and God.
Operating through the "god mode" in video games and feeding on endless information can lead to separateness, self-indulgence and narcissism. Rather than being a dynamic expression of God, the universe begins to resemble a huge machine.
Without play and contact with nature, both children and adults stifle their imagination, diminishing their power to dream, create and live spontaneously. The world is then one of controlled information split off from energy and matter. Artificial media enable us to "share without (fear of) rejection," to manipulate and eventually to become "disembodied super minds." We then lose touch with the real human person "longing for wholeness in union with another." Sister Ilia states that our greatest poverty is to feel comfortable through being safe and alone in isolation.
The book points out that the virtue of poverty, as shown by St. Francis, is to be empty, open to receive the gifts of God. In contrast, the effect of the separation possible through technology is to control and possess, to advance ourselves through appropriating the goods of the world, whether they be property, riches, skills, knowledge or reputation.
This type of clinging to things ultimately leads to injustice and violence. The environment then seems hostile and we become hard-hearted and self-absorbed, driven by fear of others and defensive behavior.
However, the realization of the presence of God within our fragile humanity and in the natural world leads us toward compassion, according to the author. As Francis left the city and the marketplace for the woods and countryside, so we can also escape the limited world of cyberspace to spend time in nature.
Jesuit Father Pierre Teilhard de Chardin suggested that we seek the larger space in the unexplored wilderness to find ourselves "where the soul is most deep and where matter is most dense." Sister Ilia shows that Francis found inner space for his soul in the outer expansion of nature.
The book suggests that since our basic belief is in Incarnation, the way to find God is to "look inside where God lives." The divine presence in an embodied world calls for a conscious choice on our part to spend time with the mundane and ordinary as Francis did, who saw "brothers and sisters" even in the elements of nature. Hence, the connectedness of all things calls forth compassion in binding us with the deepest reality, which stretches beyond the boundaries of gender, race, tribe, religion or creature. Through love we experience others' suffering, leading to both their and our own transformation.
Sister Ilia's book offers a clear path out of the present complex web of technological "progress," egotism, political power and injustice. Finally, she quotes Father Henri Nouwen, who wrote that the world will not be changed through a new idea, project or plan, but only if we "can offer a space where people are encouraged to disarm themselves."
---Sister Mona Castelazo, CSJ
Christianity: Rebellion, reforms and power vs. piety
The Triumph of Christianity: How the Jesus Movement Became the World's Largest Religion, by Rodney Stark. HarperOne (San Francisco, 2011). 506 pp., $27.99.
Christianity's failings were often due to its political involvements, or to meddling from rulers. The church has repeatedly had to fight against this power orientation. While Emperor Constantine deeply damaged the church for centuries, Christianity has always reformed and remade itself, on the whole staying faithful to the Gospel. Especially since the Reformation, but at many episodes prior to that as well, the Roman Church has been a community of the pious.
In "The Triumph of Christianity," Rodney Stark clearly shows that when Constantine decriminalized the church, he also vastly enriched it, thus setting off the centuries-long battle over simony. Wealthy and even mediocre ecclesiastical offices attracted men and their backers more interested in financial gain and worldly power than in religious service. The medieval Western church is a history of the resulting decay and reform.
Thus Roman families would control the papacy, putting into the chair of Peter men who gambled, prayed to the gods, womanized and had illegitimate children, and mocked the liturgy. Stark, a professor of social sciences and co-director of the Institute for the Studies of Religion at Baylor University, describes well the resulting great, European-wide reforms that would sweep the entire institution, as in the 11th century, when several popes including Gregory VII (pope 1073-1085) promoted a more saintly episcopacy and priesthood and fought against the buying and selling of church offices (simony).
St. Francis was another from the "church of piety," as Stark calls it --- the part of the church that existed throughout the centuries, even at the most corrupt periods, and that always followed Christ devoutly and served the people. Yet because the "church of power" retook the institution after the 11th-century reforms, the centuries between 1100 and the Reformation in the early 16th century witnessed one rebellion against the church after another, something the author covers well.
The Waldensians, near-cousins to the Franciscans, were rooted out as heretics because, unlike Francis and his followers, they did not carefully offer their loyalty to the church of power. The Cathars, or Albigensians, mostly of southern France, were also savagely destroyed in the 13th century.
Yet Stark offers a balanced view of Christian history, one that counters all the defamations of Voltaire, Denis Diderot and the other voices of the so-called Enlightenment. Stark is especially strong on showing how science directly grew out of the medieval Christian view that because God was reasonable and had made men reasonable, so the world was also built on logic and could be known in this way. The author writes convincingly that the so-called Scientific Revolution never happened, and has been an Enlightenment slander against the "Dark Ages."
The early medieval period saw profound technological growth, as agricultural innovations fed a growing population. Stark, a sociologist-historian interested in the lives of the common people, also notes the very high use of water mills by the 10th century. He attributes this in part to the Christian prohibition against slavery, which meant that agriculture and industry had to find alternative sources of power to slaves.
Catholics will come away from "The Triumph of Christianity" with a lot to tell their Protestant or secular naysayers. Stark notes that much uninformed and unjustified anger and bigotry directed at the Catholic Church not only originated in the Enlightenment, but in Protestant anti-Catholic propaganda.
He goes so far as to say that English and Dutch slander against the Spanish Inquisition was in fact racism or Hispanophobia. "Astonishing as it may seem, the new historians of the Inquisition have revealed that, in contrast to the secular courts all across Europe, the Spanish Inquisition was a consistent force for justice, restraint, due process and enlightenment," Stark observes. He notes that the Inquisition actually stopped the witch craze from spreading to Spain because it made a point of examining the accused, and often found a misunderstanding of Christian theology.
Stark does the church a tremendous service by bringing to light the heroic history of the church and showing how this past, and the heritage of all of Christianity, has been slandered by people who hate Christianity. "The Triumph of Christianity" is a welcome dose of reality.
Factual, unsentimental look at Irish urban experience
The Irish Way: Becoming American in the Multiethnic City, by James R. Barrett. Penguin Press (New York, 2012). 369 pp., $29.95.
If you are looking for a sentimental book about Irish immigrants in America --- "The Irish Way" is not it.
James R. Barrett, a professor of history and African-American studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, takes an honest, well-researched look at the Irish influence on the new, urban American identity. It is part sociology and part history. A lot of the information is neither romantic nor endearing. However, facts are facts.
It is a big undertaking. Barrett looks at how the Irish influenced their world. He focuses on their role in several major American cities and their interaction and influence with other ethnic groups. He examines all of this with the background of the street, the parish, the workplace, on stage, through the machine and in the nation.
It is a daunting task. However, the 73 pages of footnotes show that the author has done his homework.
He writes in the introduction: "My object is not to advance a universal theory of Irish Americanization. The size and location of their communities varied.... A legacy of real and imagined slights shaped Irish Catholic consciousness and their defensive urban culture. They told themselves and others that their success was hard-won, that they must stick together and take care of their own. At its best, this mindset led Irish-Americans to support integration and reform for other oppressed migrant peoples; at its worst; it became an excuse for racial and ethnic intolerance such as the Irish themselves had faced."
The book explains how the Irish, some of the first immigrants, certainly suffered. Barrett notes: "In the 1830s and 1840s, Protestant gangs invaded Irish Catholic neighborhoods in Philadelphia, Boston and New York, burning homes, convents and churches." It also chronicles how the Irish, in turn, developed turf wars with other ethnic groups in cities such as Boston, New York and Chicago.
The church also shares the dual nature of this book. It shows a caring and compassionate group, but also a church that is ruled by Irish hierarchy and not necessarily open to welcoming others to predominantly Irish parishes.
Nuns receive high praise, for the most part, in the book. Barrett especially notes that "the curriculum in schools taught by Irish nuns resembled that of the public schools, though it also included Catholic religious instruction. Irish nuns were responsible not only for the upward mobility of many Irish women but also in the long run for Americanizing them." (Here Barrett credits historian Sarah Deutsch).
In terms of politics, the Irish certainly created a strong political machine. For example, Barrett writes: "From 1908 to 1933, every Lower East Side Tammany candidate for the board of alderman, the state assembly and the state senate was Irish." Of course there are the stories of patronage and power.
This book shows the darkness and light of the Irish immigrant experience and how this influenced others. Barrett acknowledges this when he writes: "An abiding tension between inclusiveness and exclusiveness, between cosmopolitanism and parochialism, lies at the heart of the Irish-American relations with other groups. This story turns on the dynamic between those impulses."
Barrett's book shows a lot of the negative behavior of Irish immigrants. It notes that there were some positive outcomes but mostly it shows how one group can affect so many others.
The book pieces together a lot of information and facts. It is a sociological study that has a nice conversational tone. And it allows the reader to make his or her own conclusions about what the Irish did or did not do to develop the urban experience.
St. Joseph of Carondelet Sister Mona Castelazo has taught English for many years in Los Angeles, and is the author of "Under the Skyflower Tree: Reflections of a Nun-Entity" (iUniverse).
Brian Welter is studying for his doctorate in systematic theology and teaching English in Taiwan.
Peggy Weber is the social media editor for Catholic Communication for the Diocese of Springfield, Mass.